- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

President Obama on Saturday named Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah to be his ambassador to China, sweeping a potential 2012 rival out of the running.

The men lauded each other as putting country before party, and the choice has real consequences for Mr. Huntsman, who had been earning attention as a moderate Republican who could gain traction in the next presidential race.

Smiling at Mr. Obama’s side Saturday, Mr. Huntsman acknowledged he “never expected to be standing here,” since he was a national co-chairman for the McCain campaign for the presidency. Just a few months ago, he said his party’s leadership was “gasping for air,” and now he’s left a void in the Republican field for 2012.

Republicans lauded him as the right pick, but also acknowledged the move ends his chances in four years.

“I’m surprised like anybody; it looked like the guy was going to run,” Mark Salter, a close adviser to 2008 Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, told The Washington Times.

“The most basic responsibility one has is service to country,” Mr. Huntsman said. “I wasn’t looking for a new job in life, but a call from the president changed that.”

Mr. McCain, for his part, hailed the president on his Twitter feed, writing that Mr. Huntsman is a “great choice.”

The White House suggested that Mr. Huntsman, 49, is exactly the type of “outside the box” hires Mr. Obama said he wanted right after winning the election.

An Obama aide said the president’s senior Asia adviser, Jeff Bader, suggested Mr. Huntsman as the most qualified person, given his experience in the region, fluency in the language and culture, and knowledge of critical issues affecting the region.

The aide said Mr. Bader was impressed that the governor “knows how to listen and not just talk” and valued his reputation as a “problem-solver, not a dogmatist.” The aide said Mr. Bader and Mr. Huntsman became friends, and that Mr. Bader thought the governor fit the same “no-drama Obama” model the president sought during the campaign and has attempted during his administration.

The outreach came from Mr. Bader, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and finally in a final job offer from Mr. Obama himself on May 5. The governor accepted that day, and the two met in the Oval Office on May 9.

Mr. Huntsman also was attracting attention for challenging his party and for offering a new way of doing political business, sparking some to say he should consider a run for president in 2012 when Mr. Obama is up for re-election. He was elected in 2004 and re-elected last fall with 77 percent of the vote, but he gave that all away when joining the Obama team.

“When the president of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that, to me, is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge,” he said Saturday.

Introducing his choice, Mr. Obama identified Mr. Huntsman as popular and lauded his political talents that made him a White House contender, saying he had “brought people together across party lines to overcome our common challenges and to move our nation forward.”

While many Republicans were blasting Mr. Obama’s $787 billion economic-stimulus plan - and some rejected the money outright - Mr. Huntsman said that was the wrong strategy.

During a February interview at The Times, Mr. Huntsman did not spare congressional Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “I have not met them. I don’t listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential - completely,” he said.

He also said congressional Republicans lack credibility on the party’s No. 1 tenet of fiscal responsibility, saying the “moral soapbox” is gone.

“That’s why no one is paying any attention,” he said. “For us to now criticize analogous behavior is hypocrisy. We’ve got to come at it a different way. We’ve got to prove the point. It can’t be as the Chinese would say, ‘fei hua,’ [or] empty words.”

Mr. Huntsman said the leaders haven’t moved beyond “gratuitous partisanship,” leaving Republican governors to find the “big, bold solutions and ideas” that will win over voters and revive the party.

Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said it would be tough for Mr. Huntsman to mount a presidential bid, at least in the next cycle, because even if he were to step down in 2011, he still will have served the Democratic president.

And worse, he would lose valuable political time, as other candidates build up their profiles, courting donors, earning chits by supporting 2010 candidates, Mr. Mackowiak said, adding, “He will be completely unknown to a wide swath of GOP primary voters after two or three years abroad.”

Republicans said Saturday that Mr. Obama played a smart hand by eliminating a potential opponent.

“It was a perfect marriage of Huntsman’s interest and Obama wanting to be bipartisan,” Mr. Mackowiak said.

One of the masterminds of the Obama campaign, former campaign manager David Plouffe, told reporters recently that Mr. Huntsman made him nervous from a political perspective.

“I think he’s really out there and speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party,” Mr. Plouffe said, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Mr. Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, has significant foreign-affairs experience - serving as deputy U.S. trade ambassador during President George W. Bush’s administration and becoming the youngest U.S. ambassador in a century in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush named him ambassador to Singapore.

Mr. Obama said the China appointment is among the most important ambassadorships. He said Mr. Huntsman has “respect for China’s proud traditions” and noted the governor has lived in Asia three times.

Mr. Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, have seven children, including two adopted daughters from China and India.

He also served as deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Trade Development Bureau from 1989 to 1990 and deputy assistant secretary of commerce for East Asia and the Pacific. He also worked in President Reagan’s administration.

“Joining the Obama administration is not an obvious path to winning the Republican nomination in 2012,” Alex Conant, formerly of the Republican National Committee, told CBS.

But he also thinks the choice allows Mr. Obama to “neutralize one of the most politically sensitive diplomatic challenges of his presidency.”

“By putting a well-qualified, high-profile Republican in Beijing, the new Democratic president may make it more difficult for Republicans to criticize the administration’s China policies in the future,” he wrote on his blog.

Mr. Huntsman offered Obama-like positive rhetoric for how he will approach the job.

“You have my commitment that we will take the U.S.-China relationship to new heights, focused not just on that which divides us, but more importantly, on that which unites us, knowing that this will be critical for lasting peace and prosperity for citizens on both sides of the Pacific,” he said, before offering a Chinese saying first in Mandarin, then in English: “Together we work. Together we progress.”

Mr. Huntsman is the fourth governor Mr. Obama has tapped for his administration. He also nominated New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to serve as commerce secretary, but the governor withdrew from consideration owing to an ethics investigation.

Republican Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert is next in line to lead Utah.

Mr. Huntsman’s new position hasn’t closed presidential doors, however, as former President George H.W. Bush served in the liaison position to China in 1974, before the spot had ambassadorial rank.

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